Although most legal problems are solved in routine ways that wouldn’t serve as fodder for an interesting movie plot, well-made suspenseful dramas set in the courtroom make for some of the best feature films. The credits usually play out over footage of the lawyers gathering their papers and the interested parties sucking up, or celebrating, the verdict.
This time the category is deliberately narrow. So, this isn’t lawyers week or any movie about trials week. Military trials aren’t being considered this time. That means great war films with trials at their center, such as “Breaker Morant,” “The Caine Mutiny” and “Paths of Glory,” can’t be on this list.
It also means movies about kangaroo court trials that take place outside of a legitimate courtroom, such as “M” or “The Ox Bow Incident,” are for another day‘s list of favorites.
My five favorite films about trials set in a courtroom are listed below, alphabetically:
“12 Angry Men” (1957): Directed by Sidney Lumet; Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman
“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959): Directed by Otto Preminger; Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara
“Inherit the Wind” (1960): Directed by Stanley Kramer; Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): Directed by Robert Mulligan; Cast: Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall
“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957): Directed by Billy Wilder; Cast: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton
Yes, youthful readers, I can see that all the movies on my list were released a long, long time ago, within a window of just five years. Perhaps coincidentally, they were all made during the time when the Hollywood studio system was coming unraveled and before the time when scriptwriters would have felt obliged to make the lawyers’ depressions and doubts subplots to the story of the trial. Perhaps significantly, they were made before nudity and rough language became routine aspects of any crime and punishment story.
Moreover, they were all shot in black & white. If they had been made after the mid-1960s, it’s likely the same productions on my list would have been shot in color. Just as with film noir movies, it seems I prefer courtroom dramas to be about stark contrasts and presented in shades of gray.
Readers old and young are invited to use the comments section to point out the titles I overlooked.
— F.T. Rea